The other night, Sky News promoted their upcoming sports headlines with footage of Wayne Rooney’s infamous sweary episode in East London juxtaposed with a demure Jesssica Ennis bashfully waving at adoring crowds in Sheffield. What it lacked in subtlety, it more than made up for in bandwagon jumping; footballers bad, Olympians good.
The groundswell of nationalistic fervour generated by the London games has not been kind to football. The haughty derision that greeted the ‘failure’ of the Olympic football team was in stark contrast to the sanitised delirium of ‘Super Saturday’. It’s unfair to single out the footballers as failures, they weren’t the only members of the public relations orgy that was ‘Team GB’ who failed meet the British public’s child-like expectations. Much was made of the fact that these were highly paid professionals rather than the plucky factory workers competing elsewhere but so were every other team in the football tournament and none of them suffered the disadvantage of being cobbled together at two weeks notice by a managerial halfwit still dining out on an over-enthusiastic penalty celebration from sixteen years ago.
Most of all though, the sneering disparagement has centred around the difference in character between the honest, hardworking Olympian and his mouth-breathing, sandbagging Gucci-enthusiast counterpart from the world of football. Footballers, we’ve repeatedly been told, are spoiled rotten; vulgar, deceitful, overpaid brats, completely detached from the harsh reality of gas bills and Pot Noodles inhabited by Beth Tweddle and the rest of us. On the face of it, there’s some merit to this narrative. Despite their overwhelmingly working-class roots, most of us have about as much in common with the average professional footballer as we do with Louis XIV. They’re self-involved, morally cash-strapped millionaires, fully fledged members of the celebrity set in every poisonous sense of the word, far removed from the romantic, humble Olympian. It’s possible that cyclists, archers and swimmers are simply inherently better people but this self-satisfying moral crusade is sorely lacking in context.
While footballers are vain, cold-hearted mercenaries who respect nothing but money, we’re told that Olympians compete for nothing more than their love of the sport. The thing is, they have to. They’re amateurs, they don’t have anything else to compete for. We could talk about the relative merits of professional and amateur sport until Liverpool win the league (next year, apparently) but rest assured, if someone offered the Powerade, Adidas and Omega advertising Jessica Ennis £160k a week to throw a little metal ball as far as she could, she’d bite their hand off. Anyone who believes that, if an oil rich billionaire offered to double Bradley Wiggins’ salary, he wouldn’t slap Team Sky across the chops with a transfer request and talk about his excitement at joining the new ‘project’ should steer well clear of emails from Nigerian princes.
With the greatest respect in the world, the overwhelming majority of Olympians compete in sports that, not to put too fine a point on it, nobody gives a polished rodent’s sphincter about. We’re happy to bask in the reflected glory of their achievements every four years but how many of those celebrating Gemma Gibbons’ silver medal have ever been to a Judo tournament? How many of us have season tickets for the lightweight double sculls? How many can name a member of the eventing team who doesn’t have the Queen for a nan? There’s not a street in the country that Wayne Rooney can walk down without being begged for an autograph, Greg Rutheford has to pop his gold medal on to get a discount on a pasty at his local BP garage.
The reason so many footballers think the world revolves around them is because quite a lot of it actually does. For the past week, their faces have been plastered all over the very same newspapers that spent the summer deploring their position in society precisely because editors know that football sells. From Ian Rush drinking milk to avoid playing for Accrington Stanley to the ‘got, got, need, got’ frenzy of Panini stickers to George Best’s childhood home being converted into a hotel, football (and by extension, footballers) permeates every fibre of our lives in a way no other sport does. How many hours would you spend meticulously building your fantasy rowing team? It’s no coincidence that footballers are the ones Sky chose to build their empire upon (before they got the rights to the Premier League, Sky was a curious little novelty whose only content of note was ‘The Simpsons’ and a late-night German quiz show where all the contestants stripped naked), how many of us would happily slip sixty quid a month into Rupert Murdoch’s G-string to watch men’s parallel bars or slalom canoeing?
As repugnant as these self-important, preening, egotists are, we have to accept some of the responsibility. We’re enablers. We’re the ones who fork over the money that corrupts them, we’re the ones who print their names on the back of our shirts and buy anything from a pillowcase to industrial grade solvent because it has their picture on the front. We shower them with riches, fawn over them with wide-eyed adulation, and sing songs that imbue them with mythological powers, then seethe with hatred when we realize we can’t control them. Audley Harrison and David Haye have already provided us with frighteningly vivid examples of what can happen when the heroic amateur succumbs to the influence of the root of all evil. Chris Hoy may seem like a decent enough fella now but pay him £6m a year and have thousands of people sing about his proclivity for self abuse every week and see how long it takes for his world view to alter. Footballers might be odious, narcissistic arse-ogres but they’re monsters we created and we created them because we love what they do.